Home / Articles / The U.S. and Iran in Historical Perspective
The U.S. has had relations with Iran ever since the last quarter of the nineteenth century. American missionaries have been in Iran even longer than that. But the United States’ real engagement with Iran dates only from WWII. The relationship has generally been close, but it has been punctuated first by the involvement of the CIA in the coup of 1953 which overthrew a popular prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and then by the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which led to a breach in relations that has not yet been repaired. Indeed, two countries that were once close friends and allies now see each other, respectively, as the “Great Satan” and a member of an “Axis of Evil.”
Looking at how some of the leading historians and analysts of the U.S.-Iranian relationship have dealt with this issue, it’s interesting to note this constant sense of loss, of what might have been. Barry Rubin entitled his work on the relationship Paved with Good Intentions; James Bill subtitled his Eagle and the Lion with “The Tragedy of Iranian-American Relations.” Gary Sick, a former member of the National Security Council, subtitles his “America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran.” A recent book by journalist Barbara Slavin plays on this idea of a relationship that might have been much better than it is, entitling her book Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies.
Between 1945-79, the U.S.-Iranian relationship was in some ways similar to the U.S.-Saudi relationship, where the U.S. dealt with one ruling family. In the case of Iran, the U.S. dealt with one ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who came to the throne in 1941 and continued to rule for almost four decades. In this period, the relationship was governed by a number of enduring and persistent features.
First, on the American side, the interest in Iran was due in large part to the country’s strategic location, bordering, on the one side, the Persian Gulf and on the other, at least until the collapse of the Soviet Union, sharing a very long border with America’s previous adversary. Iran was also important because of its oil. During the Cold War, Iran was both a potential target of Soviet expansionism, against which it had to be protected, and a potential and often real ally in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Finally, as Iran grew wealthier from oil revenues, it became increasingly a market for U.S. goods, arms, industrial equipment, technology, investments, and, during the oil boom years after 1973, the employment of American technicians, advisers, specialists and the like.
On the Iranian side, first, the U.S. was seen as a potential protector, initially against the dominance of the two great powers that Iran had experienced throughout its 19th-century and early 20th-century history — Russia and Britain; and then against the Soviet Union. A second persistent feature of the U.S.-Iranian relationship was Iran’s view of the U.S. not only as a patron and protector, but also as an ally in advancing what one scholar has called the Shah’s dreams of grandeur; the idea that Iran could and should be a great power, at least in the region.
Iran’s 19th-early 20th century history with Britain and Russia/the Soviet Union included wars with both these powers. Iran lost territory to both, principally to Russia. Both countries were deeply involved in Iran’s economy and trade, and both interfered extensively in Iran’s internal affairs and politics. Beginning in the 19th century, Iran sought what I call a “third-country policy” — that is, trying to find a country that could counterbalance these two great powers. In the 19th century, it was sometimes Germany, sometimes France. In the 20th century, particularly beginning in WWII, Iran began to look to the U.S. But this older history of wariness of great powers has played a role in Iran’s relations with the U.S. as well. A country that was seen for the most part of the period after 1941 as an ally, a great power in its own right, could also be seen as a country playing once again the imperialist role. As we have seen since the 1979 revolution, it is largely in this role that Tehran has viewed the U.S in the last three decades.
One can view the U.S.-Iranian relationship since WWII in four phases. First, from 1941-53, Iran sought a protector and friend; the Shah actively and determinedly sought to woo the U.S., to attract it into a closer relationship. Second, from 1953 to the late 1960s (post-overthrow of Mossadegh), with the restoration of the Shah, who had fled the country, to the throne, as the result of a coup engineered in large part by the CIA and British intelligence, was a period in which Iran was very dependent on the U.S. — on American protection, support, and aid. This was not quite a patron-client relationship, and Iran and the Shah’s independence of the U.S. grew. But nevertheless, it was clear that the U.S. was the senior partner in the relationship. Third, in the period 1973-79, the relationship became much more of a partnership. The shah was much more stable at home, wealthier, and more adept at handling his foreign relations. He began to make demands. Fourth and finally, since 1979, the two countries have been adversaries and have had no direct political and diplomatic relations at all.
WWII and Post-WWII
When WWII broke out, Iran declared neutrality. But the Russians and British invaded Iran in August 1941 anyway. They did so principally for two reasons. First, Iran had had very close relations with Germany. The myth that the ruling monarch of the time was pro-fascist/German has now been addressed and dismissed. But there was a large German presence in Iran, and the British feared for the security of their oil wells in the south, and the Russians for their oil wells in Baku, across the Iranian border.
Secondly, once Hitler invaded Russia in spring 1941, the allies needed Iran’s land route to supply the Russian army. This would not have been impossible under a neutral Iran, and therefore the Russians and British decided to invade Iran. They got rid of the shah and placed his son on the throne. This also brought American troops to Iran to facilitate the supplies that moved from the Persian Gulf across Iranian territory to the Soviet Union.
The Shah courted the U.S. assiduously in this period as protection against the two great powers that had occupied the country. On the whole, the U.S. was willing to be wooed and seduced. Early on they gave Iran considerable support. It was the U.S. that persuaded Russia and Britain to sign an agreement to withdraw their troops from Iran within six months of the end of hostilities in the war. The Russians’ behavior in Iran was moderated because of the U.S. presence.
When at the end of WWII the Russians insisted on keeping their troops in Iran and supported a quasi-breakaway autonomous movement in the Iranian province of Azerbaijan, the U.S. was very helpful in pressuring the Russians to withdraw and end this support. Already during the war, a permanent feature of the U.S.-Iranian relationship had begun. The Americans sent advisors to assist in building up the Iranian army, police, and gendarmerie force and to assist in other areas of Iranian administration such as finance.
The shah, who was always ambitious to build up a large army, already began in this period what became a perennial theme in the relationship, which is to urge the Americans to supply his army with more advanced armaments.
Mossadegh and Oil Nationalization Crisis
This honeymoon period in the U.S.-Iranian relationship faced a crisis in 1951, during the movement to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. Iran’s oil industry was the most important industry in the country. It was the principle source of foreign exchange revenues. It was the largest employer in the country. But it was British controlled. Iranians had no say in the management of the company, or production, or setting oil prices. For years, the British government had derived from the Iranian oil operation far more income than the Iranian government itself. In the late 1940s and then genuinely in 1951, there began a movement to nationalize the oil industry. This movement was led by Mossadegh, who became Prime Minister. The oil industry was in fact nationalized in March 1951. Then there began a two-year struggle between Iran and Britain over this act.
During the Truman administration, the U.S. government was supportive of Iran. The US was suspicious of the old imperial powers, and supported nationalist movements, which it thought were a good barrier to the spread of communism. There was genuine sympathy with the plight of the Iranians and their desire for more control of their oil industry. The Truman administration was often in the position of urging the British to be more forthcoming in meeting Iranian demands.
The British from the beginning were very unsympathetic to nationalization and decided that Mossadegh was not a reasonable man with whom they could deal. They sought to have him removed from office. They tried to persuade the U.S. to join them in a plot to overthrow him. Truman was not willing to go along with this idea, but as soon as the Eisenhower administration came in, it was very receptive. Both President Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, and his brother Allen, the head of the CIA, were Cold Warriors. JFD believed that neutrality in the Cold War between the Soviet bloc and the U.S. was immoral. They joined the British in a plot which, after some wavering and uncertainty, did succeed in overthrowing Mossadegh in August 1953.
This was a seminal event in the modern history of Iran. The involvement of the CIA and British intelligence in a coup that overthrew a properly elected and very popular PM has remained seared into the Iranian historical imagination and has colored the relationship U.S.-Iranian relationship.
There were a number of other important repercussions of this U.S. involvement in the overthrow of Mossadegh. The Shah, who almost lost his throne over the affair, returned to Iran in August 1953 determined that this should never happen to him again. After 1953, there was increasing royal autocracy and intolerance for criticism, dissent, independent political parties, an independent press or an independent parliament.
Second, the shah’s dependence on U.S. support was intensified and entrenched. In fact, having brought the shah back to power, the U.S. had a deep interest in seeing that his regime was stable and that he remained on the throne. Therefore, he was given not only moral and diplomatic support, but financial and other forms of aid as well.
In the minds of the Iranian political class, the impact of this U.S. involvement was two-fold. On the one hand, the idea that America was different from the older imperial powers persisted. The opposition, including Mossadegh’s own party, the National Front, continued to believe that just as America had helped Iran against the imperialists in the past, it would come back to its senses and help them again.
On the other hand, the U.S., which had been seen as supportive of Iran’s national interests, was now seen in another light. Both these trends of thinking persisted among the Iranian political class pretty much down to the time of the 1979 revolution, although the close alliance of the shah and the U.S. in these years, particularly in the late 1960s and 70s, these years of growing royal autocracy, clearly brought the Iranian belief in America’s commitment to democracy, to put it mildly, under great strain.
These were also years in which the shah, both in terms of what he considered Iranian national interests and also because of his reliance on U.S. support, when Iran’s foreign policy was very closely aligned with America’s foreign policy. As a result, tensions with the USSR increased, and Iran was quick to join the Baghdad Pact, which saw Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Britain allied together in a defense pact with the U.S. an informal partner.
This close U.S.-Iran alignment on foreign policy issues in the 1950s and the early 1960s was occurring at a time when elsewhere in the Middle East and Asia we saw the rise of nationalists governments. In the Middle East in particular, monarchies seemed to be falling like flies. Revolutionary officer regimes were coming to power in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. The great nations of Asia, India, China, and Indonesia, were leading a non-aligned movement. Therefore the shah, in terms of the broader trends in the Middle East and the region, seemed isolated. All this did not go very well with the younger generation in Iran, and broadly speaking, with the educated middle classes. The shah was pursuing a foreign policy, however sensible, one might argue, that went against the grain of the dominant political mood in the country.
The shah also developed, in this period, very close relations with Israel — not because of the U.S., but because of his own calculations of where Iran’s interest lay. He saw all around him Arab regimes that were radical, increasingly allied to the Soviet Union, republics rather than monarchies. It made sense then, that the enemy of your enemy was your friend, and Iran’s relations with Israel grew increasingly in this period. Not among all, but among a significant element in the population, it was unpopular.
The events surrounding what became known as the Status of Forces bill (1964) — the U.S. just signed a similar agreement with Iraq, SOFA — also proved controversial. These SOFA agreements the U.S. has with many countries where it stations troops are intended to protect American troops or military advisors in other countries from the “terrible” local courts. It in effect extends diplomatic immunity to military personnel serving in a foreign country. In 1964, the U.S. pressured a reluctant shah and a very reluctant parliament and reluctant government cabinet to sign a SOFA to cover American military personnel in Iran. The agreement immediately aroused memories of so-called capitulations which were very common in the region in the 19th century and which also exempted European nationals from the jurisdiction of native courts, Iranian courts in the case of Iran, Ottoman courts in the case of the Ottoman empire, Egyptian courts in the case of Egypt. In fact, Ayatollah Khomeini, who 15 years later was to lead an Islamic revolution in Iran, was expelled from the country for opposing very publicly the status of forces bill, which he called an agreement for the enslavement of Iran.
These were all ways in which the U.S.-Iranian relationship soured in the 1960s-70s. But the fact that the press, parliament, and political activity was controlled meant that the pros and cons of this close relationship the shah had reached with the U.S. were never openly discussed and public opinion was never openly articulated.
At the same time, the shah was never really a client of the U.S. In fact, he always chafed at having to do America’s will and sought to escape this tutelage as quickly as he could. As his regime grew more stable, especially as Iran’s oil revenues increased, he tried to shake the U.S. off. He did so increasingly successfully. The U.S. was preoccupied with Vietnam, the Nixon doctrine which led to the twin-pillars policy, the idea that regional powers allied with the U.S. should take responsibility for regional security, and that Iran and Saudi Arabia should shoulder more responsibility for Persian Gulf security, meant the U.S. relied more and more on the shah and more on him than on Saudi Arabia, which lacked Iran’s size, population, or military clout. The Shah welcomed this, partly because it enhanced his own role and importance, and partly because he wanted to escape U.S. tutelage.
Then as oil prices exploded in 1973-74, Iran’s oil revenues quadrupled overnight. The shah became not a debtor to the U.S. or the countries of Europe but a creditor. Iran not only gained enormous economic clout, but also offered the U.S. in a period of financial stringency and high oil prices a huge market for arms, industrial equipment, technology, and employment.
In this period the U.S. did make a number of serious errors in Iran, in addition to doing a number of things correctly. Aside from a brief period under President Kennedy’s administration, when Kennedy pressured the shah to begin some reforms in Iran, particularly to break up the landed estates and give a greater share in land ownership to the peasantry, there was very little pressure in this entire period on the shah in the political sphere. The U.S. was pleased to see Iran stable and developing. It was developing spectacularly. The U. S. was pleased to have a large market for American goods. And as long as there was very little internal unrest, it seemed that everything was under control. The U.S. in this period, when it had weight and influence in Iran, missed opportunities to guide the shah politically, internally, in another direction.
Second, the U.S. was so pleased with the close alliance and with the apparent stability of the shah’s regime that it began less and less to study closely the internal political situation. We know now that a time was reached when at the shah’s insistence, the CIA agreed that it would not do its own intelligence work in Iran, but would rely on the shah’s sources. When the boom in oil prices occurred and the shah decided to use this huge revenue, less wisely than other Gulf states, to try and catapult Iran into economic advancement and industrialization, the result was huge dislocations in the economy. Not only the U.S. but all the European countries were complicit in an economic policy that proved in the end very destabilizing to the shah’s regime. The attempt to inject into the economy a significant amount of money in a very short period of time caused huge dislocations, and explains in part the discontent that helped fuel the 1979 Islamic revolution.
When that revolution took place, U.S.-Iranian diplomatic relations were broken and have not been restored since. The Islamic movement itself had from the beginning an anti-American component. Khomeini’s revolution was against the shah, rooted primarily in internal problems. But it was also against the shah’s close relations with the U.S. This stemmed from two very obvious factors. First, after all, the Americans had supported the shah, and the opposition therefore saw the U.S. as complicit in the shah’s autocracy. One also cannot forget that Khomeini was exiled from his own country and spent 14 years initially in Iraq and then briefly in France as a result of opposing the SOFA.
Second, Khomeini both in leading the revolution and then in stabilizing it once the monarchy had been overthrown, played very adeptly on anti-American sentiment. The themes of anti-Americanism, of America as the shah’s supporter, became themes not only of the revolutionary campaign but of post-revolutionary Iran as well.
Third, the seizure of the American embassy by student radicals and the taking of American diplomats as hostages had an enormous impact. Some 50 Americans remained hostages in Iran for 444 days, from November 1979 until the inauguration of President Reagan in 1981. This has left a deep impact on the American political imagination and also on the Iranian one. For the Americans, this was a searing experience; for the Iranians, it was a moment of triumph. The students who seized the embassy became overnight heroes.
Fourth, there was the U.S. position during the Iran-Iraq war. When the war broke out, the U.S. formally at least adopted a position of neutrality and did not supply arms to either side. America hoped the two sides would wear out and exhaust each other. But once Iran looked as if it might actually win the war and bring Saddam down, the U.S. began to support Saddam, not only diplomatically, but with intelligence. The U.S. also remained virtually silent when Saddam used chemical weapons against Iranian troops.
Finally, there has been the problem on the Iranian side of the U.S. attempt to sanction, isolate and demonize Iran and to view Iran as pursuing policies in Lebanon, on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and elsewhere, hostile to American interests.
It’s not as if during these years there was no U.S. attempt to reach out to the Iranians or vice versa. The first president Bush, in his inaugural address, referring to U.S. hostages held in Lebanon by Iranian protégés, used the phrase “good will breeds good will.” The Iranians did then help secure the release of these remaining U.S. hostages, but no good will came in reciprocation. Early in the Clinton administration, the president of Iran offered a U.S. company, Conoco, a large oil deal, but Clinton prevented the deal from going through. President Clinton himself, especially in his second term, attempted on a number of occasions to reach out to the Iranians without success.
So there were attempts in these years to repair relations. Why didn’t they succeed? First, there was the legacy of the hostilities of the past on both sides. Second, there are concrete issues dividing the two countries. In any Iran-US rapprochement, Iran would want to see an end to U.S. sanctions against Iran, and an end to America’s attempts to isolate Iran and deny it technology, trade, and credits. The U.S. would expect Iran to change its posture on Israel, to stop attempting to be a spoiler in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and to end its support for groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza strip hostile to Israel. Also, for the U.S. there’s the issue of Iran’s nuclear program.
In addition, some forms of Iranian foreign policy behavior to which the U.S. particularly takes exception have become very entrenched. Iran’s hostility to Israel has become a pillar of its foreign policy; its investment in Hezbollah in Lebanon is a long-standing policy. Iran and the U.S. are now competitors for influence in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. Iran may be a small and weak country compared to the U.S., but it does have its visions of grandeur. It sees itself as the great power of the Persian Gulf region. It believes the U.S. must make space for it at the table in deciding the future of Iraq or Afghanistan. One can see how much at odds the Iranian position is from America’s.
The events in Iran surrounding the June 23 elections will make it much more difficult for President Obama, who has tried to open a new page in U.S.-Iran relations, to allow his senior officials to sit at the table with Iran. But even had these events not taken place, U.S.-Iran relations would remain fraught with difficulties and obstacles.